DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I am a mother of two, work full time and am also a breast cancer survivor. I know exercise is important, so I try to hit the gym a few times a week for strength training and walking. A friend recently invited me to a yoga class. I never thought of adding yoga to my fitness routine. What are the benefits and how can I get started?
Yoga is a wonderful form of exercise that offers benefits that walking and weight training do not. In Eastern cultures, yoga is not considered an exercise, but rather “moving meditation”. In the western world, many people are familiar with power yoga or vinyasa yoga, which are classified as exercises.
Whatever the type, the practice of yoga brings together physical and mental disciplines that can help you achieve peace of mind and body, relax, and manage the stress and anxiety associated with being a busy mother and living with cancer.
Yoga can provide three main benefits that a typical gym routine may not provide: improved nervous system function, better joint range of motion, and improved dynamic balance.
Improved nervous system function
Since yoga is breath-based, parts of the nervous system are affected as you lengthen your exhale duration and control your breath. This is signaled throughout the particular yoga sequences. Specifically, yoga can help reduce the fight or flight response and improve the body’s “rest and digest” response.
Practicing slow, controlled breathing stimulates the body’s vagus nerve, which takes information about the current state of relaxation and transmits it to the rest of the body, including the brain. One area affected when the vagal nerve is stimulated is the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the resting and digestive functions of the body.
Conscious breathing practiced in yoga increases the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. As a result, yoga lowers the heart rate, improves digestion and sleep quality, and strengthens the immune system. Another benefit is stress reduction.
Improved joint range of motion
The difference between flexibility and active range of motion is important. Think of flexibility as the extent to which a muscle can be stretched passively. In contrast, range of motion is the amount of muscle that can be used to control the movement of a joint.
It’s not uncommon these days for people to report neck and back pain and a low range of motion in their thoracic spine due to constant sitting, typing on computers, and searching for mobile phones. Yoga is excellent for improving chest range of motion, as many poses involve extending the body through the rib cage and using force to hold those postures.
Yoga incorporates the four movements of the spine: flexion, extension, rotation and lateral flexion. Therefore, yoga can prevent stiffness and disuse that can also occur with age. Being able to control the range of motion available in the joints is crucial for good posture and reducing the risk of injury.
Think of balance as a muscle. By working hard at different exercises, balance can improve. This is similar to improving strength by lifting weights.
Balance is a complex system, requiring three parts: the sensation of the foot on the ground, or proprioception; vision; and the inner ear, or vestibular system. These three parts tell the brain where the head is in space. These three components work together to control both static and dynamic balance.
Yoga trains proprioception and visual systems to improve balance. Depending on the pose, signals are sent to focus, for example, on the foot anchored to the ground. By focusing on trying to maintain contact, the big toe, little toe, and heel form a kind of tripod, which in turn helps focus the proprioception part of balance.
In yoga, you may hear the term “drishti”, which refers to obtaining a focused gaze or concentration in the mind. The concept comes into play when people aim to hold a pose with their eyes closed. Some poses become more difficult with the eyes closed, which improves the visual part of balance.
Additionally, moving back and forth between poses without fully touching a limb to the ground can increase the ability to move dynamically and not lose balance. Over time, this will reduce the risk of falling when walking on uneven ground or turning quickly.
If you choose to try yoga, take it easy and try different types of yoga to find what works for you. Although you can learn yoga from books and videos, beginners generally find it helpful to learn with an instructor. Visiting a class with your friend can be more enjoyable as it will provide you with support and time together, which is just as important for overall well-being as fitness.
When you find a class that looks interesting, speak with the instructor to find out what to expect for the class. And remember, you don’t have to do all the poses. If a pose is uncomfortable or you can’t hold it for as long as the instructor tells you to, don’t do it. Good instructors will understand and encourage you to explore – but not exceed – your personal limits.
While it can be difficult to add one more thing to your busy life routine, incorporating yoga into your fitness routine can improve your stress levels, mobility and balance in a way that cannot be achieved with your usual gym routine. — Compiled by
Mayo Clinic Staff
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